An abyss next to you

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Serpentine
by Philip Pullman,
illustrated by Tom Duxbury.
Penguin Books 2020

“That horrible endless bottomless— It must be like having an abyss right next to you every moment, knowing it’s there all the time . . . Just horrible.”

A year after the events in Lyra’s Oxford, but well before the action described in The Secret Commonwealth, Lyra and Pantalaimon are off on an archaeological dig organised by Jordan College, investigating a settlement of the Proto-Fisher people in the Trollesund region of Arctic Norroway.

While there they take the opportunity to visit Dr Lanselius, consul to the witch clans of the north, whom the pair want to ask about the separation that the witches can achieve with their dæmons. But Lanselius already knows about Lyra and Pan’s ability to separate, the result of the trauma that took place when Pan couldn’t follow Lyra to the Land of the Dead in The Amber Spyglass.

When Pan and Lanselius’s serpent dæmon go out of the room to converse, not only does Lyra know the consul has the same ability but she is also able to discuss the other separation that has taken place since they came back together, one which has meant their former easy familiarity is not only strained but is resulting in a growing alienation she finds most distressing.

In this short novella nothing much in the way of action happens, but — after a rather prosaic exposition — conversations between Lyra and Lanselius, Pan and the serpent, and finally between Lyra and Pan reveal that the gulf felt between separated humans and their dæmons is one that may not be easily repaired; living with this uncomfortable relationship is, as Lyra tells the consul, “like having an abyss right next to you every moment.” That state of affairs will foreshadow what is to come in The Secret Commonwealth and precipitate much of the action there.

As a bridge between the two trilogies of His Dark Materials and The Book of Dust it explains much but also deliberately leaves much unclear, like knowing the path you’ve trod but having the way ahead shrouded in mist. When Pullman wrote this story in 2004 he had, as he explains in a note, “no idea that I was going to write another trilogy,” so in a sense he too was in the dark about future events. But fifteen years beforehand some hints about the quests begun in The Secret Commonwealth (2019) were already in evidence, as revealed by Dr Lanselius:

“In central Siberia there is a region of devastation. Thousands of years ago there was a prosperous city there, the centre of an empire of craftsmen and traders that reached from Novgorod to Mongolia. But they made war with the spirit world, and their capital was destroyed by a blast of fire. Nothing has lived there since — plant, insect, bird or mammal.”

The mysterious place of separation for witches and their dæmons which Lanselius describes parallels Lyra’s visit to the Land of the Dead but will also prove to be a projected destination in the second and third parts of The Book of Dust.

Our heart aches for that abyss that is opening up between the girl and her dæmon: Pullman captures that perfectly in their awkward conversations, dialogues that are reminiscent of couple relationships where bickering and resentments are everyday occurrences, growing in frequency and depth. Nevertheless there is a sense of some rapprochement towards the last pages just as the snow starts falling, signalling that the climate is starting to right itself after Lord Asriel’s catastrophic experiment in Northern Lights. Tom Duxbury’s line illustrations capture some of the starkness of both landscape and emotions; they appear every two pages, sometimes as a double page spread, figures elongated, vistas stretching into infinity. I seem not to be the only one to sense a touch of Greta Thunberg in Lyra’s depictions.

However, even in this short piece there lurks a worm in the bud: can we actually believe everything the consul says? Can we even take on trust what his serpent dæmon divulges to Pan, bearing in mind snakes reputation for cunning? And what about the novella’s title? For ‘serpentine’ implies twisting and turning, and snakes have forked tongues.

One final note: Lanselius looks as though it’s a Finnish surname, akin to Sibelius which apparently derives from a property near Helsinki called Sibbe. That may imply the consul’s origins lie somewhere called Lanse or even L’Anse. In Lyra’s Oxford the fold-out map is published by Smith and Strange at Globetrotter House; and among the travel books they publish is The Proto-Fisher People of L’Anse aux Meadows by a Groenlander Skraeling called Leonard Broken Arrow. Is Lanselius quite who we think he is?

6 thoughts on “An abyss next to you

    1. Absolutely, Johanna. David Fickling Books published both Once Upon a Time in the North and Lyra’s Oxford, and handsome books they were too with all those extras. This one — slightly longer vertically, with a dust cover but no extras — is from Penguin Books, and that’s a real shame.

      I suppose it could depend who Pullman’s agent treats with but the multiplicity of publishers — David Fickling, Penguin, Scholastic, even though they have been interlinked in these series — the format changes are confusing as well as irritating.

      According to DDB’s website they say they’re “new as an independent – but we’ve been around for a while! For nearly twelve years DFB was run as an imprint – first as part of Scholastic, then of Random House [part of the Penguin Random House conglomerate]. Since 2013 we’ve set up as an independent business… ” You wonder why they can’t all get their act together to give Pullman fans their titles in consistent formats.

      Liked by 1 person

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